Photo credit: Value of Water campaign, US Water Alliance
We rely on water for our survival, and we rely on the drinking water and wastewater utilities in every community to ensure that our water is managed appropriately. Furthermore, water utilities are a vital asset to communities as they impact our local economy, health, and the environment. New Jersey has over 500 municipal and private water utilities providing both drinking water and wastewater management. These systems don’t function without the frontline people working day in and day out at our drinking water and wastewater utility. These essential services require dedicated staff and provide well-paying, career-oriented opportunities.
And yet, utilities face a dual challenge to meet this labor need. The first is that a significant portion of water sector staff are eligible for retirement within upcoming years. Approximately one-third of water and wastewater operators in the U.S. are eligible for retirement within the next 10 years,¹ and all retirements within a utility can result in up to 50% of staffing vacancies.² Compounding the issue of an aging workforce, the water sector is struggling to recruit and retain skilled, qualified workers.
The second challenge for utilities is to diversify their workforce by age, gender, and race and providing employment opportunities for residents within their service areas. One study has found that “water workers tend to be older and lack gender and racial diversity in certain occupations, pointing to the need for younger, more diverse talent.”³ At the same time, some residents in low-income communities of color, many of whom have been historically and systematically excluded from accessing stable jobs with lifelong career pathways, need access to water sector jobs that provide such opportunities. New Jersey, averaging a high number of water utilities compared to the rest of the nation, especially needs to grapple with these issues.
According to Renewing the Water Workforce: Improving water infrastructure and creating a pipeline to opportunity, there are various water occupations available in the water sector. These include:
- Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters
- Construction Laborers
- Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators
- Operating Engineers and Other Construction Equipment Operators
- Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers
- First-Line Supervisors of Construction Trades and Extraction Workers
- Office Clerks, General Helpers–Pipelayers, Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters
- Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers
- Secretaries and Administrative Assistants, Except Legal, Medical, and Executive
- General and Operations Managers
- Hazardous Materials Removal Workers
*There are other occupations not included on this list, such as IT/computer that also provide opportunities to enter the water workforce.
To start to address these challenges, Jersey Water Works has recently convened a Water Workforce Task Force. Their work plan goals are to:
- Convene utility leaders, educational institutions, pre-apprenticeship programs, career centers, and community-based organizations to explore partnerships, collaboration, and to pursue goals.
- Coordinate efforts to bolster education and outreach to make water a career of choice.
- Advance a New Jersey water workforce pipeline initiative by finalizing a curriculum or career pathway map for entry into the water utility employment sector.
- Research funding opportunities to engage partner utilities to implement a water workforce pilot program that would create an employment pipeline from the local community.
Depending on where the general public and Jersey Water Works members stand, there are different activities that individuals and organizations can participate in to ensure the sustainability of the water workforce sector. The targeted resources below can be used as starting points for further engagement.
- Information for Job Candidates: Find out about available career opportunities.
- Information for Water and Wastewater Utilities: Create or enhance your workforce development practices.
- Educational and Professional Development Opportunities for Water Workforce: Places to learn and prepare or advance in a career in water.
- Information for Workforce Development Sector: Get to know opportunities available and how to promote them!
Jersey Water Works is working to transform New Jersey’s inadequate water infrastructure through sustainable, cost-effective solutions that provide communities with clean water and waterways; healthier, safer neighborhoods; local jobs; flood and climate resilience; and economic growth. Sustaining our water workforce and increasing diversity and inclusion within the sector are two critical parts of the collaborative’s overall mission to promote water equity and ensure that everyone—no matter who they are or where they live—has access to safe drinking water and clean waterways at an affordable price. We welcome your support in these efforts.
Jersey Water Works members are encouraged to get involved. For more information, reach out to Paula Figueroa-Vega, Program Manager.
¹ “America’s Water Sector Workforce Initiative.” Environmental Protection Agency. 2020. https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2020-11/documents/americas_water_sector_workforce_initative_final.pdf.
³ Kane, Joseph, and Addie Tomer. Renewing the Water Workforce. Brookings Institution. June 2018. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Brookings-Metro-Renewing-the-Water-Workforce-June-2018.pdf.